The Creatives Behind Obsidian House Break Down The Project’s Intention And Potential Legacy

This January the Black Artist + Designers Guild (BADG) have brought together twenty-three creators to design spaces for their inaugural incubator project. Obsidian Virtual Concept House is an expansive vision of living and dwelling for Black families, offering designer the possibilities of utilizing cutting edge smart-home technology integrated with advanced sustainable systems and practices, while considering a multiplicity of Black family identities.

Leyden Lewis of Leyden Lewis Design Studio and Nina Cooke John of Studio Cooke John, who designed the dwelling’s architecture, joined us to discuss their design process, inspiration, and the legacy they hope Obsidian leaves.

ASPIRE DESIGN AND HOME: How did the creators collectively decide on a location, and how did that location influence your design process?
Nina Cooke John: The Obsidian committee chose Oakland, California, for its rich Black history and connection with the Black Panther movement and the Black community. Black tech was also a major driver in the beginning as one of Obsidians’ four principles is innovation, and the home is intended to be future looking. So the idea of having it in the Bay Area where there is a lot of innovation happening in the tech field made sense. We wanted to explore inside-outside spaces and Oakland had the right space.

ASPIRE: The house is imagined in the year 2025. What do you see for the future of Black design? How do you hope Obsidian will influence Black design specifically and also the design industry in general?
Nina: In terms of influencing Black design, we see Obsidian as an inspirational project. It’s a house designed by Black designers with a directive that was formulated by Black designers in an overarching project that was created by Black designers. So, for those in the industry, it can be a project to look towards in terms of how a mix of Black designers from various backgrounds, with different design approaches, took the same brief and conceptualized and articulated their vision into their individual spaces.

Leyden Lewis: I think we’ve got to break apart the term Black design. This is not a monolith Black design. It is, in and of itself, a textured den, and a collage of multiple ways of being a Black person – considering everyone’s personal histories, individually idiosyncratic, and cultural backgrounds.

So that’s just one thing – this idea of a model of Black design, because we don’t ask the same question about what white design is. What we do know is that we’re going to be bringing ourselves as individuals with our own personal experiences in the way we’ve been approached, our design experience into this project to share with the design industry. This is a platform, an opportunity for individual practitioners to have exposure and to observe their treatises and philosophies on how to approach the design of a multi-generational Black family in all of its dimensions.

Leyden Lewis; Lewis’ Williamsburg apartment. Photography by David Land.

ASPIRE: What role does sustainability play in the design of the house?
Leyden: Sustainability is one of the main principles of Obsidian. We explored rainwater harvesting, solar energy, geothermal heating and air conditioning. All of those things are systems. We envisioned the house being self-sustaining. Let the land feed the house and let people be the system that feeds the house. Each BADG-Creator had the opportunity to approach their idea of sustainability within their own individual spaces.

Nina: We also thought about sustainability in terms of sustainable practices and how you use the space and the land, in thinking about food cultivation on the property; growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs, on the land that could be easily harvested to use for foods.

ASPIRE: How did COVID and quarantine influence the spaces you envisioned? How did it affect how you think about and construct functional environments throughout a home?
Nina: COVID was a huge influencer because we started the design process during lockdown. Many ideas, including our buffer zone, were created with the idea of protecting the family. Having a space before you enter the heart of the home where you could cleanse or just be separated from anyone who might be visiting or dropping off packages. We were doing more than just eating and sleeping at home, we were working and exercising. From growing your own food and meditating to worshiping and doing everything at home, we want to have the flexibility in all the spaces to accommodate any of these activities. But then beyond that, understanding that household dynamics were changing. Many young people moved back home, and older adults moved in with relatives for care and support. Creating a dwelling that could accommodate a multi-generational family and their lifestyle was really important to us.

Leyden: I think the word agency is very important, like how we really did set a course for different scenarios. For example, older parents could live across the deck outside, with little to no contact to others, including those coming home such as college students. Having a buffer zone and an elevator directly up to spaces. We took in many considerations, we were very intimately involved with because we were currently dealing with these challenges.

ASPIRE: Within your design career, have you ever worked on a project like this, that brings together Black creators in a project specifically for Black families? What does it mean to you to work on a concept house for and by Black people now?
Leyden: I’ve never had this opportunity. Not at this scale. I’ve done work for people of color and specifically Black people. But this is special. As an artist, creator, architect, and a person who designs.

This has been an iterative process, and I’m learning so much about myself through this process. Problems, circumstances, come up and we iterate. To find out as we start to hone our skills, or in architecture, you know, how to begin to address the problem and begin to create solutions. This is a powerful emotional project for me, because I realized that the bodies in there will be all Black and Brown, that was the intention.

Nina: I’ve never worked on a project like this. You know, I’ve worked on a project with BADG members, the DIFFA exhibit which had many Black creatives come together not just to discuss something abstractly but actually work on a project. And similarly, here I think it meant a lot to me especially, you know, during the rounds of presentations when each of the designers were presenting their ideas, it was really inspiring to see the breadth and depth of work that these amazing people had, and were bringing to the table, and it strengthens my thoughts about the BADG community, and what it does for us both in terms of not only resources but a community of artists and designers that are working towards the same goal but in very different ways.

Nina Cooke John; Studio Cook John’s most recent project: Point of Action.

ASPIRE: Can you go into more detail about how the indigenous people of the Bay Area, the Ohlone, influenced your design process?
Leyden: The Ohlone were seasonally nomadic as far our research revealed. I think about the garden, the landscape belongs to the Ohlone in my poetic mindset. Also, the sanctuary by Cheryl R. Riley, an outbuilding. It has a feeling of being temporary, whether it is or not. I feel like we were mindful of that we activated spaces to nourish the family. It was keeping the Ohlone in the spirit and mindfulness of our choices and decisions, the focus on sustainability and how we occupy a space but not take more than we’re giving.

ASPIRE: How did you balance representing Black history and ancestry, modern-day Black culture in America, and modern design/construction practices?
Nina: We took influences from all aspects of our lives. The schools we went to, our architectural education. But also, you know, we are Black people and we’ve lived the Black experience and during our design process we talked about issues that are current, and related to us and related to the Black community now but also historic issues that affect how we live as a family, how we live as a community, or historical precedent.

ASPIRE: What do you hope the biggest takeaway is from Obsidian?
Leyden: It’s an aspirational project. It’s an aspirational house. The biggest takeaway will be, ‘they considered this condition around light.’ We are not saying that this is a set of rules about Black design, that’s why I wanted to break that apart, but they will be able to go ‘Oh wow, maybe I should consider this as a part of my next renovation.’

Nina: I think it’s mostly inspirational. These Afro-futuristic projects are about how we can dream about the future and then make it a reality.

ASPIRE: How would you describe the project in three words?
Leyden & Nina: Grounded, Sculptural, Cultural.

Obsidian Virtual Concept House launches virtually Friday, January 29th. Click here to register for the launch party.

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